Western culture has an odd veneration for royalty. Our fairy tales and fantasies are full of Good Kings, Wise Kings, and Fated Kings, while Disney has made fortunes upon fortunes churning out fictional princesses for us to adore. It’s a romanticism that seems incongruous with the bloody true history of such things. So if there’s one thing I appreciate about Kill Six Billion Demons, it’s that it never shies away from laying bare the fundamental essence of royalty: violence.
I’ve hesitated for a long time over reviewing KSBD, in all honesty. While much of it I enjoy greatly, there’s still something about it that bugs me, a weird vibe that feels like a warning of… something. But I can’t review based on vibes, nor can I wait forever for a shoe that may never drop, so let’s dig into what I can say about the comic so far.
KSBD is the story of Allison, a young woman trying to work up the nerve to have sex for the first time with her douchey boyfriend Zaid. But the two are interrupted by an interplanar angel war party beheading a man in their bedroom! The angels ride away with Zaid, while the mystery man’s headless corpse inserts a strange glowing key into Allison’s forehead, which results in her transportation to a strange ochre-and-puce city filled with demons. Are you with me so far?
Rescued, or perhaps arrested, by a trans(?) angel cop named 82 White Chain Born in Darkness Returns to Subdue Evil, Allison learns that she is in Throne, the city at the center of all 777,777 universes where God once lived before committing suicide, and that the key in her head is a tool used to jump between universes, a priceless treasure to the warlord kings who now seek to conquer all possible worlds, including Allison’s version of Earth. Please don’t have an aneurism.
Kill Six Billion Demons is about Allison’s quest to save her boyfriend, who… was supposed to be the one to get the key? He’s the heir to the old king Zoss, the guy beheaded in the opening scene? Or Zaid’s being held prisoner by the seven kings of creation because they think he’s the heir? Or something? I honestly don’t really understand this part at all.
But somewhere along the way, the timid Allison changes. Tempered by the hammer of mortal peril and the anvil of godlike power, she finds herself coming into her own as an avatar of vengeance and righteousness.
And she starts fitting herself for a crown.
For all its convolution and detail, KSBD is not a subtle story. Allison and her growing cadre of allies leaps from frying pan to fire over and over as every faction in the multiverse attempts to divest her of her head and the key inside it, leaving a wanton trail of blood behind them. It’s a comic that is lovingly ultraviolent, with scenes of carnage rendered in painstaking detail and gory freeze-frame. And its central theme is repeated over and over like a mantra: “Reach heaven through violence.”
It’s a vision of the entire universe as a savage free-for-all of slaughter and horror, where the strong prey on, enslave, and violate the weak, and as such it’s probably the most bleak setting I’ve ever seen. It’s completely blasé about things like sex slavery in a way that’s disturbing to read, using the wholesale annihilation of women’s agency as set dressing, not something worth addressing in the plot. Several central characters formerly or currently eat living humans! Allison’s personal arc is one of wading out into that sea of blood and finding her place in it, and it’s not yet clear if the story will present her rise to power as a triumph or a tragedy.
It’s interesting to note, while on the subject, that there are two different kinds of power and violence in the story, portrayed in subtly different ways. While powerful individuals in the comic can be unforgivably evil, they can also be heroic and valiant, defending innocents or upholding the crumbling law. On the other hand, powerful groups such as the guilds or the Thorn Knights are only capable of evil – an extension of the will of their leader. This is a story about kings, and it affords no space or thought to the idea of collective power.
Perhaps KSBD’s emphasis on individualism is the source of the bad vibe I get from it. Perhaps it’s the way it places a white woman at the center of a world composed of motifs from Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoist traditions and cultures. Maybe it’s the single-panel throwaway “joke” of Allison’s Desi roommate yelling “Is that a fucking bindi?” as if the story’s relentless third-eye imagery isn’t taken directly from Hinduism. Or it could be the bizarre cishandling of White Chain’s gender to the point where I’m not sure what their identity is actually supposed to be. It’s also possible that the only reason I’m classifying these things as “vibes” instead of concrete criticisms is because the comic is so wild and overwhelming that it obscures the author’s intentions to the point where I no longer feel certain about anything.
Case in point: the scene where we are introduced to White Chain, they’re facing down a crime boss who genders them as female, which the angels stiffly corrects. At first I thought this was a case of a clueless organic misunderstanding the genderless nature of angels, but on a reread of the comic, a different interpretation emerges. More characters throughout the story, allies and foes alike, imply that White Chain is a woman as if they know better than White Chain themself. In a confrontation with their angel boss Michael, he cites “clinging to insipid gender” as one of White Chain’s human-like failings… despite gendering himself and all other angels as male. Finally, after having been banished to the Void, a distraught White Chain sobs “What does it matter if I feel a little… feminine.” But after returning to their body, they immediately resume their uptight closeted demeanor, even referring to a flamboyant criminal angel as a “deviant”, the same word that other angels have used against them. For what it’s worth, it’s also a word that’s been used against me in real life, for the same reasons.
As happy as I would normally be to find a fantastical depiction of transness as it plays out in a non-human species and culture, I find it hard to see anything relatable or even internally consistent in White Chain’s angelic gender nonconfortmity. The crime boss in their first scene says “we’ve all heard rumors” about White Chain being a woman, but if they’re so buttoned up about their gender feelings to the point that they see someone gendering them correctly as an insult, where could those rumors possibly have come from? What unseen behaviors prompt Cio to say that White Chain is “strugglin’ to be something she clearly isn’t”? Why do many characters use she/her pronouns for the angel, but the author uses they/them? Are they nonbinary? Is that term even meaningful to an angel? How can angels be genderless and male at the same time, or is that just some “maleness is the default” bullshit?
Ultimately I find myself with fewer burning questions about the narrative itself and more about the author’s intentions, and frankly that doesn’t imply anything good about the story. While it has strengths and plays to them with confidence, it plays to its own weaknesses with equal fervor, and doesn’t seem to know the difference. What could be a dark and competent epic of heroism in the face of a hostile multiverse is hampered by inscrutable and uncomfortable writing choices. And Cio and Allison probably aren’t even going to kiss.
Addendum: (April 3, 2018)
This is maybe an odd one to revisit during a “spring cleaning” period considering that the review is only a few months old, but I ended it on an extremely ironic note and that’s got me to thinking: am I too cynical?
So Cio and Allison do in fact kiss, a development that landed relatively shortly after I posted my original review where I dismissed the possibility. And despite my emotional guarding, I did feel something when I read the scene. Way back when I reviewed Spinnerette, I talked about “gay vindication”, the unique emotion you feel when the gay subtext you think you see in a story turns into gay text. But I also felt a bit… sad? Sad that I had closed myself off to the possibility of a real gay payoff, as a way of guarding against yet another disappointment.
It’s hard out there for a gay with their hopes up. That’s the primary reason I made this site in the first place – to help queer readers find the content they want without having to suffer and second-guess like I have. But if I let my bad experiences with queerbaiting and lazy subtext toughen me, I imagine that I become less relatable to those readers, my opinions less valuable. If I don’t have my hopes up, what am I even doing here?
Cynicism is a dead end. It protects you from pain only at the cost of joy and wonder. Cio and Allison did kiss. Lesson learned.